Muslims in France's army who go on the pilgrimage to Mecca this year will not have to travel on private commercial flights or bunk with ordinary civilians. In a break from tradition, the Defence Ministry will provide a plane to fly them to Saudi Arabia and organize their stay.
For any western government to arrange a hajj trip would be unusual. It is especially so here, in a country so protective of its secularism that it regulates what Muslim girls can wear in school and is considering a blanket ban on the face-covering Islamic niqab.
But for Mohamed-Ali Bouharb, a spit-and-polish gendarmerie captain who put together the final pieces for the pilgrimage last week, it is one step toward making Islam as "banal" in France as any other religion.
"The army is always in advance of society," said Capt. Bouharb, one of the 30 Muslim chaplains recently recruited by the armed forces. "And it is anaesthetized from all the social questions and debate outside."
While religion and state remain firmly separated in the rest of French society, the military has started accommodating its Muslim personnel in ways that would be unthinkable outside the barracks.
It now provides halal meals and, where possible, prayer rooms. Last week, the Muslim chaplaincy published the first edition of a new magazine, splashed with photos of mosques, recipes for meals to break the Ramadan fast and an article that would not raise an eyebrow in any French magazine. Its subject: How do you say "I love you?"
"What is really interesting is that while completely respecting France's secular spirit, we are nevertheless not very far from Anglo-Saxon vision," Capt. Bouharb said. "To have a photo of a mosque in a magazine from the secular public service - that's new."
France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, estimated at between five and seven million people, or about 7 to 10 per cent of the French population.
Statistics are not available because, officially, the state does not collect data according to ethnicity, religion or race. But the ratio of Muslims in the military, including the national police or gendarmerie, mirrors that in the population as a whole, according to Capt. Bouharb and other officials.
Minorities are still clustered almost exclusively in the lower ranks. But Muslims have served in the army since France's days as a colonial power 150 years ago and, until mandatory conscription was ended in 1996, they were drafted as soldiers like other young French men.
Yet Islam in the military was not on an equal footing with other faiths. The Defence Ministry created a Muslim chaplaincy only in 2005, long after it had established Catholic, Protestant and Jewish offices.
"Soldiers I've interviewed say it was hard to be Muslim in the armed forces until a few years ago," said Elyamine Settoul, a doctoral student at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris who has surveyed minorities in the military.
"There were no accommodations for Ramadan," he added. "If the meals contained pork they weren't offered an alternative. It created tensions. But they say it's much better now."
Much of the credit for the changes is given to the corps of Muslim chaplains, who also serve as prayer leaders or imams. While they have been integrated into all branches of the military, they have also been enrolled in a special course in French-style secularism.
Last year the army sent two of its Muslim chaplains to a government-sponsored class on citizenship and secular values for imams, the first of its kind, and another six will attend the course this fall.
The course was taught at the private Catholic Institute of Paris because no public university was willing to wade into the state-religion divide. Some French Muslim leaders also criticized it as an inappropriate attempt by the state to take on the training of imams.
"What I knew about secularism going in was what everybody knows," said Capt. Bouharb, 32, who was one of the first graduates. "What I learned was its history, all the political debate at the beginning of the 20th century and its legal basis."
He also said the course left him better prepared to explain France to its own Muslim citizens, like those who come to him complaining that their daughters cannot wear head scarves in school or that their town refuses to set aside women's hours in the public pool.
"Even if our parents were not born in France, it's our country," said Capt. Bouharb, whose parents immigrated to France from Tunisia in the 1970s. "We were born here, grew up here and were educated here. We have to accept that public institutions apply the principle of secularism."
There were misgivings even among Muslims in the military when the chaplaincy was first set up.
Only one in five imams in France speaks French as their first language. On average they are older than 50 and had their religious training in the Middle East or Turkey.
So some soldiers and gendarmes worried they might get an old-fashioned imam in a North African djelabah robe and floppy slippers, said Capt. Bouharb, or else "some bearded guy like Khomeini or somebody who only speaks Arabic."
The French army, with its long history of bonds with the Catholic Church, has for years sponsored annual trips for its soldiers to Catholic shrines in Lourdes. But the chaplains said the impetus for the army's upcoming hajj trip was more about security than playing catch-up.
Military personnel who travel on their own for the hajj could fall victim "to thieves or swindlers or disreputable travel agencies," Capt. Bouharb said. "Or imagine the situation of a serviceman who goes on his own and stays in a place where there's some incident - I don't know what kind, but maybe a bomb or a fire."
Soldiers and police officers who go under the auspices of the military will have to pay about €3,000 - roughly $4,700 - less than most private travel agencies would generally charge, and their housing and guides will be provided by their counterparts in the Saudi Defence Ministry.
The trip is scheduled for November, unless it is cancelled over concerns about swine flu.
Special to The Globe and Mail